What kind of military relic collector are you?

When you buy military antiques, are you collector of "opportunity" or "conviction?"
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“JAG,” a recent email began, “You should buy this!” Attached was a link to a Craigslist ad selling an early slat grille Jeep…or at least there may have been one under the rust and later modifications. Being the opportunist that I am, I followed the link to learn more (keep in mind, up to that moment, I was not in the market for a Jeep). The next few hours revealed a lot about my collecting habits.

Collector of Conviction or Collector of Opportunity

Those who know me, know that I have some collecting consistencies: I have collected antique photography since I was a little kid when my Dad gave me some 1860s carte de visites. I have collected WWI photographs for nearly 30 years. And I have collected WWI AEF Tank Corps material for more than 15 years.

Display of Tank Corps uniforms, helmets, and headgear.

Limited resources have forced me to focus my collecting. Over the past 15 years, I have concentrated on items that tell the story of the birth of the United States' Tank Corps during WWI.

What I have not collected are WWII Jeeps. Back when Krause Publications interviewed me to edit their newly acquired Military Vehicles Magazine, the founder of the company, Chet Krause, asked if I owned any military vehicles. “I having been watching Hemming’s for a half-track,” I told him.

Chet stared at me for several seconds before saying, “Hell. We won’t pay you enough to support a half-track.” Before I could reply, he added, “Come work for me and you can drive mine anytime you want.”

And he was boasting. The first year with the company, I bet I spent 20 hours behind the wheel of his M16 in addition to hundreds of hours driving other military vehicles in his collection. The second summer I was working for the him, he called me into his office. “I see one of my Jeeps parked in your driveway,” he announced. I figured my career was at an end. Again, before I could must a reply, he added, “Why don’t you just keep it at house for the summer — after all, I know where you live. My Dad and I build that house!”

For the next several years, I had the run of Chet’s collection (at the time, numbering about 140 vehicles). I helped his mechanic when I could, we ran the vehicles to various parades, and I never was at a loss for “photo models” when I needed a picture of carburetor, tool kit, CCKW, or even a Sherman tank.

But, I didn’t know how good I had it. Time marched on and Chet decided to divest himself of his collection while he was still able. A lot of his collection went to a buyer in Holland, funneled through a dear, mutual friend, Kevin Kronlund.

Over the next couple of years, I followed many of the vehicles to Spooner, Wisc., where Kevin transported Chet’s collection before shipping much of it overseas. And I benefited from the same generosity. Kevin never hesitated to say to me with a smile, “Take [this truck or track] out for a drive. Just bring it back when you are done. After all, I know where you live!”

So for the next several years, I had the run of an even larger, more diverse collection of vehicles including Mack NOs, a variety of Weasels, M1 and M1A1 wreckers, CCKW ponton trucks, DUKWs, GPAs, and the list went on. And I never realized how good I had it.

When my dear friend Kevin lost his life in a tragic accident, the collection was dispersed. Some of it sold, much of it donated to several museums. Today, some of the stars of his collection are still operating at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage, N.Y.

But back to that email with the bastardized Jeep…”JAG. You should buy this!” I must admit, as a military vehicle guy, I have been spoiled, first by Chet, and then by Kevin. I had it much better than I could have ever imagined, driving and enjoying WWII US vehicles that most could only dream about.

So, when someone sends me a link of a project that requires hours of work, lots of resources, and an abundance of money, I tend to be a bit jaded…and politely say, “It’s not for me.”

And while I am jaded and a little bit spoiled, something more deliberate is at play. For many years, I have fashioned myself as a “collector of intent” and not one of opportunity.

As a “collector of conviction,” I have disciplined myself to focus on items within my collecting areas: Antique photography, WWI photos, and WWI AEF Tank Corps material. I do this for two reasons: 1. I believe that focus leads to a collection with depth and meaning. And 2., I don’t have the money to just buy whatever I find that looks interesting.

So, even though that Jeep may have been “an early one” and was, by all accounts, restorable and interesting, it did not fit into my collecting scope. It was easy for me to look at it and say, “It is not for me.”

And, whereas I may have missed something, if that exceptionally cool Tank Corps group or Mexican War daguerreotype is offered to me tomorrow, I have the resources to purchase it.

WHAT TYPE OF COLLECTOR ARE YOU?

To be fair, the friend who sent me the Jeep link would proudly declare that he is a “collector of opportunity” (though he and I both know he has slowly shifted to become a “collector of conviction” in the last decade). Through the years, he assembled a diverse collection of quality material that he happened to find at antique festivals, yard sales, and militaria shows. There was nothing wrong with that. It was always fun to visit him and see the wide range of material including Civil War accouterments, WWI French uniforms, and D-Day-worn helmets. He had amassed a really nice selection of militaria.

But, as time went on, his interest changed to sharing his collection. He put on exhibitions, gave talks, and set up hands-on events. In doing this, he discovered that, even though he had a big collection of militaria, it was difficult to “connect the dots” to tell a story. Transitioning from a Civil War cartridge box to an MG08 machine gun and then to WWII paratrooper’s uniform just seemed to have some wide gaps.

So, even though he had been a very successful “collector of opportunity” for most of his life, he switched his tactics. He sold or traded many of those early “opportunity acquisitions” in order to add to his “life of the common soldier in WWI” focus. Now, his lectures and displays can explain the lives of a French “poilu,” a German infantryman, or a US “doughboy” in the trenches. He has firmly converted from a “collector of opportunity” into a “collector of conviction” with one caveat: He will still sweep up a “good buy” on a WWII German helmet or other relic outside of his focus to use to swap for or finance his current focus — something most of us are prone to do!

Neither a “collector of conviction” nor a “collector of opportunity” is right or wrong. Heck, there is enough divisiveness in the world today that I don’t want to throw shade over our hobby, well. But, recognizing what your goals with collecting are will help you when that email arrives in your inbox that begins, “You should buy this!”

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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